Monday, July 27, 2015

The Story of TransLink Part 1: The Old Funding Bait and Switch

Funding, or lack thereof, and control of transit in Metro Vancouver has been an issue since I’ve existed on this planet.

Under BC Transit, the provincial government was running Metro Vancouver transit service into the ground. In 1996, Metro Vancouver “compared to other major areas in Canada, on a per resident basis, [had] the lowest supply of transit, second lowest transit ridership, and highest car ownership” rates in the country according to the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

Metro Vancouver adopted the Livable Region Strategic Plan and Transport 2021 in the 1990s. These sibling policies set the stage for building our region around people, not cars. By building walkable and transit-accessible neighbourhoods, the region could accommodate growth while preserving precious greenspace and farmland; the very things that make our region a special place. There was a hitch though.

If the newly minted region growth and transportation plans were to go anywhere, more transit service would be needed; BC Transit was in a sorry state. The region needed more transit, but the provincial government was not looking to increase spending on transit in Metro Vancouver. Something needed to be done.

The province wanted to cap spending on transit while the region wanted more control, and the ability to grow the transit system. After much back and forth, a deal was struck.

A new transportation agency would be created for Metro Vancouver. This agency, now TransLink, would be controlled by a 15 member board. This board would be comprised of 12 Metro Vancouver appointees, with sub-regional representation and weighted votes, like other Metro Vancouver boards. There would also be 3 board members appointed by the provincial government. This would finally give local governments in Metro Vancouver control of transit. Local governments would also be getting control of some former provincial highways and bridges too. The idea was to have a transportation authority that could carry out the vision of Transport 2021.

Funding was a sticking point. In the end, the province agreed to keep paying ongoing capital payments for the Expo Line and West Coast Express. The province also agreed to pay for 60% of the capital costs of the yet to be built Millennium Line and Evergreen Line.

The provincial government would stop charging a Hospital District Property Tax in the region, worth $70 million (2015 dollars) at the time, and reduce the provincial gas tax in Metro Vancouver by 6 cents. The idea was to create a replacement property tax and gas tax for the new regional transportation authority.

Gas tax stays at 15 cents per litre, the bill of goods sold by the province.

As an old information brochure said “gas tax stays at 15 cents per litre” and “there would be no need to increase residential property taxes.”

The new transit authority would also get the other funding sources that existed at the time including fares, the parking sales tax, BC Hydro levy, and non-residential property tax.

Now it was known that more funding would be needed if the region was to remaining livable by meeting the goals of the region growth strategy and Transport 2021. $265 million per year (2015 dollars) in new funding would be needed.

The lynchpin for the whole plan was a proposed vehicle levy to be introduced after the 2001 provincial election.

On paper, both the province and local governments got what they wanted. The region got control of transportation while the province was able to stop funding the operation of transit in Metro Vancouver out of general revenue. Metro Vancouver residents would finally get the transit system they deserved.

Of course, this wasn’t to be. The NDP fearing the vehicle levy would get them unelected, scrapped it. The BC Liberal won that election, and also didn’t move forward with the levy.

The BC Liberals agreed to raise gas tax by 2 cents per liter, if local governments agreed to jack up property tax to collect an additional $20 million per year for TransLink. Fares would also be hiked to collect an additional $25 million per year. It was though this would bring in $85 million per year (in 2002 dollars). It was enough to keep things going while getting the Millennium Line running. It was far short of the money required to meet the vision of Transport 2021.

Not much has changed since 2002, TransLink is still lurching from crisis to crisis, and we still don’t have the funding needed to build the transportation system we deserve.

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking in more detail on how Metro Vancouver taxpayers got a bum deal from the province.

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